An enduring flavor of Chicago and hard work

Every so often, I settle in at the counter at Lonnie’s Best Taste of Chicago, usually for a Rush Street chili cheese dog. One thing I always get, though, is friendly service from owners Lonnie and Diane Edwards, the couple who own and operate the small business in St. Matthews.

Usually, Diane will greet you and take your order, give you a number ripped from the bottom of her order pad, and then you wait a few short moments while Lonnie gets your meal together, whether it’s a signature Chicago-style dog, a burger or a Greek Island gyro.

I walked into Lonnie’s recently looking for some back story on the place and to take a few photos for a book project about Louisville eateries, due out in the spring. Diane was busy, so as I got maybe three steps inside the door, Lonnie turned away from his grill and said, “Do you know what you’ll be having today, buddy?”

I paused, having just taken a peek at the menu board behind the counter, and he smiled and said, “Take your time.”

There’s no rush at Lonnie’s. There’s efficiency on display, as he and Diane work in tandem, with him doing most of the cooking and her doing most of the order-taking and some assembly. They go about their work with barely a word, kind of like it’s a dance — and one they know all the steps to, having opened Lonnie’s Best Taste of Chicago at its current St. Matthews location nearly 15 years ago.

Anyway, Diane came to take my order, and I decided to forgo my usual to get the Clark Street dog with fries. The Clark Street, named for a street in Chicago, is a classic Windy City-style dog: all beef, topped with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, sport peppers, relish and yellow mustard, served on a poppy seed bun.

As I waited for my order, I told Diane about my project and asked if I could get a photo of her and Lonnie.

She said, “Hmmm. OK. You’re not going to put my head on a different body are you?” I laughed and said no, then she called Lonnie’s name.

“Lonnie, this guy wants to take your picture,” she said.

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“Huh?” he responded.

“He’s going to put your head on a different body,” she said, never missing a beat. Lonnie just shook his head and kept working.

Once the late lunch rush had died down, and after I’d polished off my delicious and messy dog — sans the cucumbers, which I loathe — Lonnie came over to tell me the story of how he moved his family from Chicago to Louisville in the mid-1990s while working a corporate job. He liked Louisville and wanted to stay and raise his two young children here, but was shocked to find there were no Chicago-style eateries.

After a few years dying in Corporate Hell, he finally decided to return to a business he loved when he ran Lonnie’s Palate Pleasers in Chicago’s South Side. And that’s how Lonnie’s Best Taste of Chicago was born.

He does it right. Vienna meat, which is sort of the de facto official hot dog and Italian steak producer of Chicago, is all he uses, and he sticks with what he knows, right down to the poppy seed buns, which add an element to the flavor of Lonnie’s signature hot dogs, while also sticking to your fingers. Eating a Clark Street dog is a memorable experience that involves occasionally wiping bright green relish from your lip or snatching a stray tomato from the paper-lined plastic basket the dog was served in.

Oh, and as I waited for my lunch and chatted with Diane, she said, “You like hot peppers?” Do I ever. So, she grabbed a quick sample of the spicy Italian steak with some peppers, a sandwich I’ve never tried while at Lonnie’s. It was spicy, tender, and dripping with delicious juice. She had served me the sample in a small plastic cup, and I literally took a drink of the leftover juice before handing it back.

These days, Lonnie and Diane’s children are grown and have graduated from state universities, a fact Lonnie proudly shared. He spent a few minutes talking to me about hard work and how anything is possible if you dedicate yourself to working at it. It says a lot for the entrepreneurial spirit and about what’s important, and the conversations I had with these two hard-working people gave me a smile.

And those hot dogs aren’t half bad, either.

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